Category Archives: Communist Students

Pause for thought

We do not live in a democracy, we live in a ‘rule of law’ state, argues Mike Macnair

The Christmas vacation will inevitably involve a pause in the student campaign against fee rises and cuts in universities and colleges and – in the 6th forms and further education sector – in defence of the education maintenance allowance (EMA). This is in the nature of things: it is harder for students to mobilise out of term. The pause will be and should be a pause for thought: where does the campaign go when everyone comes back next term?

This article is an attempt to contribute to that process of thought. I don’t want to claim that its answers are certainly right or should be the end of a discussion, but rather to contribute to the necessary discussion. I offer three basic points.

First: the use of force against the Con-Dems, their paymasters, and the paymasters’ other agents, is morally justified. This point has to be emphasised and repeated as often as it takes, because we are already seeing a media campaign against ‘violence’ and fraudulent allegations that it is the work of ‘infiltrators’, and we will certainly see more of this crap in the next period.

Second, and however: the display of student anger through what remain minority attempts to use force has real tactical limits, and those limits are rapidly approaching. We have seen militant demonstrations which have displayed a laudable fighting spirit. But when the police have had their act together – which has varied – the numbers have not been enough to break the ‘kettles’ or to deter police attacks. The demonstrators represent broader support, but remain a minority. The movement needs to dig deeper into building up and connecting with the mass support – so far passive – for the cause, which certainly exists.

Third: the movement needs to aim higher in what it fights for. Immediate defence of what exists against the Con-Dems’ obvious attempt to make it worse is an understandable starting point. But ‘what exists’ is already massively deformed by previous neo-liberal ‘reforms’ and the existing student fees arrangements. So there is a risk that by sticking to ‘defence of what exists’ the pass is sold: the campaign lacks an alternative vision, the Con-Dems are able to win grudging acceptance of the principle of their attack from people who aren’t students, lecturers or otherwise immediately involved, and the mobilisation peters out in a grumbling retreat.

The responsibility for aiming higher rests in the first place with the left. United campaigns are excellent. But we also need a united party of the Marxist left to intervene in the public debates about the issue with an alternative to the neo-liberal ‘human capital’ theory of education which claims that education recipients should pay for ‘what they get’.

Justified force

The use of force by demonstrators – from the assault on Millbank to fighting back against the police kettles, to attempting to put fear on the royals – is morally justified. This is, as I said, the first and most fundamental point. It is the most fundamental because we are already having it drummed into us, and will hear it over and over again, that it is morally unjustified, will damage the campaign, is the work of ‘extremists’ and ‘infiltrators’, and so on.

Fortunately, the initial gut reaction of many people to the ‘student unrest’ has been “good on them!” The Daily Mail was most disappointed to find in a poll of its readers that the majority still supported students. This was almost certainly an artificial result; but the artificial poll result reflected a certain reality: relatively few people are led by the ‘violence’ to want to express an opinion against the students.

However, the tidal wave of media against the most militant students will inevitably shift the climate to some extent. It is hard, if you are constantly lied to over a prolonged period, to hang on even to prior knowledge inconsistent with the lies – let alone to hang on to a mere gut instinct that it’s a good thing someone is fighting. We need to counter this wave of lies by explaining, patiently, over and over again, why the use of force against this government is morally justified.

The basic starting point is that the use of force is a normal and humdrum element of modern capitalist society (and of all the societies that went before it back to the beginnings of class society). Suppose you don’t pay your rent, mortgage or taxes. A court order will be obtained and bailiffs will come to enforce it. If significant resistance is anticipated, the bailiffs will be backed up by the police. Suppose you arm yourself sufficiently to drive the police away (say, with a gun) police marksmen will come and kill you. Suppose, like the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in 1993, a larger group of you arm yourself sufficiently to defeat the police marksmen, full-scale military weapons (tanks and artillery) will be used against you.

Such extreme cases are rare. But this rarity is because most people, most of the time, think that the law is legitimate and acceptable and put up with it, even if they grumble, when they lose out by law. For those who don’t put up, the ordinary humdrum laws remain backed by willingness of the state, if push comes to shove, to use extreme force to enforce them.

The escalation does not always happen. Sometimes the state backs off from law enforcement. For this to happen there have to be either powerful interests opposed to the law, or broad masses of people who think that the law, or its enforcement in this case, is illegitimate.

The ‘powerful interests’ type of case can be seen in the Sunday trading confrontation of 1994, where the large retailers faced down the government, or the fuel duty protests of 2000, where the oil companies backed the trucker protesters and the government backed down.

The ‘mass hostility’ type of case can be seen in the mass squatting movement of 1946, in the case of the Pentonville Five in 1972, where spreading mass strike action defeated the court order to jail the dockers, and in the poll tax struggles of 1989-91 – especially in Scotland, where mass resistance inflicted partial defeats on the bailiffs.

Sunday trading and the fuel duty protests in reality had also an element of mass support behind the opposition to the laws. Christians and shop worker unions did not succeed in persuading a majority that the Sunday trading laws were an acceptable use of state power. Nor did green campaigners succeed in persuading a majority on the fuel duty escalator. Without that mass backing, the state could not face down the retailers’ or the truckers’ defiance of the law.

Law in general claims to set the limits of the legitimate use of force. Most people most of the time accept it as doing so. Even people who are in jail for crimes, though they may think that they ought not to be in jail, mostly think the laws in general justify the use of force against (other) criminals. Conversely, the law defines what counts as ‘force’ in public argument. Action which is legal is called ‘peaceful’ though it involves coercing others; action which is illegal is called ‘violent’ though it is initially merely unlawful entry into property or sitting down in the street.

As the examples of defeats of the law given above show, the enforcement of laws ultimately rests on mass consent to the use of force to enforce them. If broad masses withdraw their consent to a particular law or a particular use of law, the use of force to enforce it may become impracticable.

The consent rests on two pillars. The first is the belief that the laws in general are broadly just. No-one thinks – for example – that the laws against murder, rape or burglary should be abolished. The second pillar is mass acceptance of, or ‘putting up with’, the state as such, or of the constitution. Thus we are constantly told by politicians and the media that ‘violent’ protest is unacceptable in a democracy. The idea is that the procedures by which laws are made bind us all to obey them.

This would be fair enough if we lived in a democracy. Law-making and elections would then be a means by which we take collective decisions; and the minority would have to accept that the majority is entitled to have the decision carried out, even if it is wrong or unjust.

But we do not live in a democracy. We live, on the contrary, in a ‘rule of law’ state. And what this means is that the state is fundamentally committed to defending the interests of property owners and creditors, even if this costs the lives of non-owners and debtors. This commitment is expressed strategically in the ‘rule of law’ itself, but more immediately in the form of institutional corruption.

Elections to parliament are fundamentally governed by institutional corruption and fraud, through the role of the advertising-funded media. Lawsuits and judicial law-making are similarly governed by corruption through the ‘free market in legal services’. The 2010 election was unusually fraudulent, because none of the parties were telling the truth about what they intended to do in relation to the cuts.[1]

Suppose a government has not been democratically elected, but still makes only just laws (like the law against murder). The law would remain a proper moral guide to the legitimate use of force: not because of the procedure by which the law was made, but because of its content.

Suppose, however, a government does not have a democratic basis, but proceeds to make unjust laws. Now there is no case for regarding the law as setting the limits of the legitimate use of force from the content of the law itself; and there is no case for regarding the law as defining the limits of the legitimate use of force from the procedures by which the law has been created. The legislators have, in effect, become criminals: and the use of force against them is just as much morally justified as the use of force against any other criminal.

This is the present situation. The financial industry got itself into deep trouble through speculation. We can admit that this was a necessary consequence of the normal development of the business cycle from boom to bubble: while it lasted, the financiers were still very well paid. The outgoing Labour government then used vast amounts of taxpayers’ money, borrowed money and simply invented money to bail out the financial industry. Now the new government – of parties which were very heavily funded by financiers – proposes that the rest of society should pay for the resulting debts. But the financial industry and the ‘savers’ who gained from the speculation are not – except at trivial levels of new regulations – to pay. Oh no: that would be to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This result is unjust. I do not mean by this that it is not in accord with a transhistorical value of justice or with some general moral standard of distributive justice. I mean that it is conduct which is unjust by the standards of capitalist society: if it was done by anyone other than a government, it would be recognised as theft and attract a substantial jail term.[2]

What we have with the Con-Dem cuts project is theft from the general public, protected by the fact that the electoral system is institutionally corrupt. This fact lies behind the widespread gut feeling that student demonstrators’ expressions of anger by using force are ‘OK’. It lies particularly behind the hostility to the Lib Dem MPs who voted for the fee rise, whose promise to vote against student fee increases turns out to have been in substance dishonestly obtaining MPs’ and ministerial salaries by deception, contrary to section 15 Theft Act 1968 – or, at best, to dishonestly making off without payment, contrary to section 3 Theft Act 1978.

The gut feeling is there because it is true. It is morally justified to use force against the Con-Dems, against their paymasters, and against their paymasters’ other agents.

Tactically limited

A guy points a gun at you and demands your money. It is morally justified to use force to resist him. But this does not mean that it is always the best practical thing to do. On a larger scale, when William the Bastard brought his large gang of armed robbers into England in 1066, the English were certainly morally entitled to fight; but Harold Godwinson would have been better advised to wait for reinforcements rather than – as he did – marching immediately to fight the invasion at Hastings with small forces.

The student direct actions of the last few weeks have not been a real attempt to coerce the Con-Dems by the use of force into giving up their attack. Rather, the use of force has been a – strong – display of anger: a way of dramatically reinforcing the message of the strength of feeling against the government’s unjust scheme for privatising higher education and dumping the cost on graduates. The anger has been displayed. Where next?

One possibility is to try to up the ante: more occupations, more street-fighting, and so on. Meanwhile, the government has upped the ante with more kettling and longer lasting kettles, police cavalry charges, an OTT legal charge of ‘violent disorder’ against Charlie Gilmore over the ‘Cenotaph flag’ incident, and so on. In practice, it is likely that a good part of next term’s student political effort will have to be put into defence of those victimised after these protests. Meanwhile, the government has threatened to up the ante with kite-flying for the use of water cannon.

Where does escalation lead? One historical possibility is May 1968 – all too fresh in the memory of many of today’s leaders of the far left. The injustice of the government’s actions is kept fresh in people’s minds by the street-fighting and brings to mind all the government’s other injustices; workers begin to come out on unofficial strikes, initially in protest against the repression; the political order is thrown into crisis. A more extreme version would be February 1917: both sides up the ante until the government begins to make more widespread use of lethal force; people get killed, but the illegal strikes and street fighting go on: the cops and soldiers begin to refuse orders to fire on demonstrators. That would, of course, be a revolutionary crisis. In these patterns, the initial minority action brings out the broader masses and by doing so brings down the administration and its projects – or, in extreme cases, the state.

Another historical possibility is the fate of direct action supporters in the US and Germany (and other countries) growing out of the later 1960s student movement. The workers do not come out; the street fighting does not trigger a revolutionary crisis. The majority become demoralised and retreat. A minority who are still determined on direct action conclude that ‘you do need a Weatherman’: what you need is more effective use of force against the government and capitalist criminals. Minority direct action slips over into individual terrorism. Terrorism becomes a ground for more widespread repression and consolidates a bloc of political support round the government.

Which is the more likely outcome of a policy of continuation or escalation of minority use of force by the most militant students in 2011? Regrettably, the answer at the moment is the second. There is considerable anger among broad masses at the Con-Dem coalition and its cuts threat. But we have not reached the point which Lenin famously and perceptively identified as the moment of revolutionary crisis: when the rulers cannot go on in the old way and the ruled will not go on in the old way.

Revolutionary crises are less like earthquakes which come completely out of the blue, more like storms which are (usually) preceded by signs warning of the coming storm. The last period has been one of acute weakness of the workers’ movement and low and until recently declining levels of strike action. It is true that this decline has probably bottomed out and that strike action has begun, very slightly, to rise. But the movement remains very weak. In this context, the student direct actions have to be seen as at most a harbinger of a future storm: not its immediate starting point.

The reality this implies is that minority student direct action is unlikely even to mutate into terrorism. If people stick with the direct action tactic past its initial legitimate and effective effect as an expression of anger, it is likely that they will in effect be banging their heads on police batons in preference to finding a brick wall to bang them on. And the result will probably be really what Tory and Blairite commentators call it: ‘1970s re-enactment’, but without much impact.

Dig deeper

What has been said above is not an objection to the use of force or illegal action as such. It is merely a point about the tactical limits of minority forcible action.

What follows from it is the need to work to increase the numbers actively involved. It is necessary to dig deeper into the broader passive support for the demonstrations and hostility to the government’s project.

This sort of work is less spectacular, more tedious and more localised than direct actions. It means unambiguous recognition that the advertising-funded media is part of the enemy, not an instrument that can be used by the movement. It therefore implies building up counter-networks of communication to allow the activists to speak with the broader masses without media filtering.

E-forms of communication have been creatively used, but in spite of their potential they have their own limits.

Print is needed to make more sustained arguments: leaflets and regular campaign bulletins or local alternative press can counter the integration of the mainstream student press into the ‘journalism career ladder’.

Face to face argument and contact are needed to engage effectively with the arguments put in circulation by the enemy: student activists should be thinking of initiatives like, for example, canvassing the halls of residence door to door. Regular open meetings, not limited to the ‘practicalities’ but discussing wider issues of policy as well, are vital. These spread ideas, develop the ability of activists to defend themselves in argument with the hesitant or the hostile, and can increase the number of activists and their solidarity.

For these tasks the student far left tends to substitute the idea of reconstructing, or democratising, the National Union of Students. A good example is provided by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s leaflet for the December 9 actions: a third of a column on local tasks, itself not bad; slightly more than a column on the NUS, the demand for an emergency NUS conference, and national unity of ‘activist’ student unions – pretty certainly diversionary.[3]

Treating the NUS as if it was a trade union has been a persistent weakness of the student left in the recent past. Focussing on the internal constitutional forms and mechanics of the NUS adds to this mistake the fundamental weakness of the recent policy of the far left in the real trade unions. That is, that the far left has given too much weight to efforts to win ‘left’ policy and elections within the normal bureaucratic framework of the unions, as opposed to efforts to rebuild the rank and file structures of the unions at the base and their effective relationship with their members.

Even so, I doubt any leftist trade union militant would argue for a main focus on the national bureaucratic game in the midst of an actual industrial dispute: and to the very limited extent that student unions can be analogised with trade unions at all, the present struggle with the government over fees is analogous to a dispute. The problem is to mobilise and to organise at the base.

Aim higher

The far left’s comments on the struggle over fees are overwhelmingly simply about the means of fighting this attack. Prominent in most of them is the idea of a student-worker alliance, to be created by students carrying the news of their struggle into the (currently very weak) trade union branches, trades councils, etc, and by giving picket-line solidarity to industrial disputes.[4] The implicit assumption is made that the campaign is simply to defeat this attack – not to fight for anything more.

The problem of building wider unity is necessarily connected to the issue of what the movement is fighting for. Certainly, trades councils (where they survive) and union branch meetings (perhaps, with luck, quorate) will be happy to pass supportive resolutions. Seeking mass support involves larger arguments. For many people who aren’t immediately contemplating going to university in the near future, the false logic of Dearing and Browne – that graduates are the main beneficiaries of higher education (HE) through increased wages, so graduates should pay for it – has some degree of purchase. Activists seeking to mobilise mass support will need to counter these arguments.

There are two possible responses. The first is to suggest ‘realistic’, merely marginal, changes. Thus the AWL leaflet remarks of the NUS that it (presumably meaning its leadership) “wants to tinker around the edges of the payment system but accepts as inevitable (desirable, even) the idea of education as a paid-for commodity.”

A variant is to assert that the money can come from somewhere else – without answering the argument of principle. Thus the Socialist Workers Party suggests that bank bonuses last year were higher than the total university income from student fees in the same year: “Take the bonuses and abolish fees!”[5]

The real alternative is to argue in principle against the idea that HE is or should be a commodity. A step in this direction is taken by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain’s ‘Education workers’ advisory committee steering group’. “The Communist Party regards education not only as a service to individuals which should be provided regardless of ability to pay, but also as a centrally important basic industry vital for the development of all aspects of an advanced society.” They propose that raising UK corporation tax to the average in the G7 central capitalist countries would pay for higher education without fees.[6]

It’s a step in the right direction – but insufficient, for two reasons. The first is the question posed by the person who isn’t contemplating themselves or their kids going to university. OK, the money could be found by increasing corporation tax (assuming this didn’t lead to a flight of capital, causing the higher tax rate to bring in lower returns). But if corporation tax is to be increased, why spend it on students rather than on hospitals, or social services, or nurseries, or any of the other activities facing cuts?

The second reason is that the argument of principle – that education is “a centrally important basic industry vital for the development of all aspects of an advanced society” – is deeply ambiguous, because it is half-way to being within the terms of the nationalist argument that HE is essential to ‘British competitiveness’. Suppose it turned out that HE didn’t increase national competitiveness. Surely the CPB comrades would still think that it should be provided regardless of ability to pay. But why?

The answer is that education at all levels is not, and should not be, merely training to fill your future assigned role in society. It is, and should be, the provision of the means of access to the riches of choices and culture which the society is capable of providing. Governments ration it out and give it grudgingly in order to keep the poor in their place. HE is, and should be, education for power: for the ability to form your own rational opinions and participate in social discussions in the face of imperfect and contradictory information and uncertainty. This is a political right, an aspect of citizenship.

It is this political character of HE that – on the negative side – produces too many Oxford politics, philosophy and economics graduates in the leaderships of the main parties. It is this political character which makes it obviously and scandalously unjust that graduate MPs who studied under the old grants regime should pull the ladder of access to HE up behind themselves.

This political character means that HE should be available freely to all who want it. There are, of course, practical prerequisites – for example, it is no use trying to do a humanities degree without prior effective literacy or a science degree without fairly well-developed prior maths; but the real prerequisites are a lot lower than the hurdles which are set by the annual competition for university places. This approach, then, means fighting for an expansion of HE, not the mere maintenance of what already exists. It means in particular an expansion of adult education and mature access to university education.

What is involved in aiming higher is an alternative vision of society. For Browne, and the Con-Dems who have adopted his report, their vision is of a society purely governed by the capitalist market: in which everything has a price and nothing a value. The alternative is a society whose aim is the fullest and most rounded possible development of every human being. The name of that aim is communism.

Why aren’t the far left working away in this campaign to propagate this alternative vision of society, which also represents an alternative vision of the role of education? The answer is a combination of two illusions. The first is the illusion that ‘moderate demands but militant action’ (Tony Cliff) is the way forward. ‘Transitional demands’ and ‘the transitional method’, as interpreted by the modern Trotskyist left, is merely a variant on the same idea. The place it leads to is either the cul-de-sac of minority direct action, if we stick to the ‘militant action’ side; or merely tailing the Labourites, if we are willing to settle for less.

The second illusion is sectarianism. The SWP tries to speak to broad masses or ‘newly radicalising forces’ by blocs with the Labourites, and tries to ignore the rest of the far left ‘sects’. The same is true of the Socialist Party in England and Wales … and of the AWL … and so on. The same is most of the way true of the Morning Star’s CPB. But the result is that for each competing group, the level of political argument has to be lowered to fit the aim of a bloc with the Labourites. When broad masses or ‘newly radicalising forces’ are actually engaged in action, what they see of the left is 57 varieties – selling pretty much the same product.

The movement needs the vision of an alternative society that Marxism offers. To present that vision, however, we need to overcome sectarian divisions and create a real – even if, in the first place, small – communist party.
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  1. More detail on these points in my articles in this paper: ‘Sleaze is back’ July 20 2006; ‘It is not enough to call for abolition of anti-union laws’ April 8 2010; ‘From an instrument of deception’ April 29 2010.
  2. I do not mean by this to retract what I said a couple of weeks ago (‘Arming the resistance’ Weekly Worker December 2 2010) about the underlying motive of the cuts being to maintain London’s standing as a global financial centre. Theft is still theft when its underlying motive is not personal enrichment but (for example) to give someone else’s money to charity.
  3. Also and more detail in Dan Randall, ‘NUS fails to back its members: its members must turn it upside down’ December 7 2010,
  4. AWL leaflet, above n3, and editorial, Solidarity December 8; ‘Mass walkout shows the way – now let’s link up students and workers’ Workers’ Power November 27; ‘The fight goes on against fees and cuts’ The Socialist editorial December 8; ‘Workers’ support for students is key’ Socialist Worker December 18.
  5. Socialist Worker editorial December 11.
  6. ‘Education experts set out fair alternative to tuition fees’ Morning Star December 13.

Communist Students oppose reactionary men’s societies on BBC

Men’s societies in universities and colleges have nothing to do with promoting equality

Macho revanchism hides an ugly face, argues Chris Strafford

Over the last few years there has been a growing trend of reactionary moves against women’s representation and the women’s movement, and this has been reflected in universities and colleges.

A common argument now being put forward by everyone from the far right to a gaggle of peculiar libertarians is: ‘Women have their own groups and student societies, so men should have them too’. This has resulted in the abolition, merging or downgrading of women’s officers posts in student unions, to the extent that only eight universities now have a full-time women’s officer in student unions that are largely dominated by men. Over the last few weeks ‘Man Collective’ (Oxford) and ‘The Men’s Society’ (Manchester) have been accepted as recognised student societies, resulting in national media coverage. Rightwing commentators have dubbed this ‘men’s liberation’, a supposed reaction to ‘positive discrimination’.

These developments must be seen within the wider context of a growing macho revanchism and the recent attacks on women, such as through the Welfare Reform Bill, which essentially seeks to impoverish single mothers, new measures against sex workers, the continuing inequality in pay and life opportunities, not to mention the increasing trend to blame women for provoking sexual violence and rape, resulting in a low rate of convictions.

What some are saying is that it is men who are now oppressed – not because of class, ethnicity, sexuality or disability, but because the women’s movement has ‘gone too far’ and now it is not misogyny, but misandry (discrimination against men), that is the problem. To back up this assertion a variety of different ‘facts’ are employed – male underachievement in education, higher rates of suicide, poor investment in male-only cancers …

But these phenomena are produced by class oppression, not misandry. Schooling for the working class is still centred on creating a significant number of semi-skilled or unskilled workers. Most of my school friends never went to university and ended up working in shops, as labourers, on apprenticeships or spent months at a time on the dole. Suicides are undoubtedly higher amongst the working class – unemployment, poverty, alienation and the constant stresses of capitalist society drive individuals to despair. It is also obvious that workers with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are less likely to survive than the rich. The NHS ‘postcode lottery’ is not actually random – life expectancy for men in working class areas of Glasgow is 28 years lower than those living in the lush suburbs.

Another common argument used by supporters of the ‘male backlash’ is that men need to discuss masculinity and to build a ‘positive male identity’. even supposed communists like George Waterhouse of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has been defending these groups, writing on Facebook: “The main aim of the men’s society is to counteract what we refer to as ‘the fall of man’. Too long have we listened to that serpent and munched upon his proverbial apples.”1

In the abstract there is little problem with men discussing masculinity. Indeed there have been men’s caucuses doing that in order to aid the movement for women’s liberation in parallel with ‘women’s only’ meetings. In other words, male debate may be useful and play a positive role in strengthening the women’s movement. However, the new groups have been formed on a rather different basis.

To understand what they are about and where they are going we need to know who is behind them. In Manchester we have been very successful in exposing them. For example, the founder of the new society is Ben Wild, a rightwing evangelical Christian. Whilst well spoken and polite, Ben thinks that ‘straight pride’ might be a good slogan for a men’s society. Two of the Manchester committee belong to Conservative Future, the Tory Party’s student organisation. Unsurprisingly it is Conservative students who have been at the forefront of attacks on women’s officers posts.

But the Manchester committee also boasts a couple of individuals with links to the Orange Order, who have been quite happy to show their support for Ulster unionist extremists. After pointing this out we were threatened with libel action and violence, and the membership of such Facebook groups seems to have ended. The committee also includes a UK Independence Party supporter, who is notorious for choosing Goebbels as a favourite historical character!

All this may look like name-calling and silly student politics, but it is obvious that this group represents a coalescing of rightwing forces determined to undermine gains women have made over the last few decades. Their opponents have been labelled “feminist Nazi dykes”, “lesbians” and that age-old favourite of rightwing idiots everywhere: “men-hating feminists”.

In response to these moves students across the country have begun mobilising to counter the influence of men’s groups. At Goldsmiths University a move to accept the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ was defeated by a meeting of students. In Manchester supporters of Communist Students, the Socialist Worker Student Society, the Commune and the Anarchist Federation have met to discuss a plan of action for the new term. We are intent on winning the argument on campus. Those of us based in Manchester are looking to link up with other groups in order to present a united response to these attacks.



Royal Mail’s assault and our political tasks

As expected, attempts to broker a deal between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union have been unsuccessful. Mike Macnair examines why Royal Mail, encouraged by the government, has been determined to push ahead with confrontation, and looks at the implications of this decision

cwu-demoA Sunday Times front-page headline reads: “Brown faces winter of discontent” (October 25). In other words, this is not the only industrial dispute in the pipeline at the moment. There are a whole range of them expected to come to a head in the next six months.

There is a risk – one that would not be at all surprising, as it is normal to the British political cycle – that the last months of this Labour government will be characterised by large-scale industrial disputes and substantial disruption. This will therefore see an increasing degree of support for the Tories from suburban middle class voters due to the perceived lack of Labour control over the trade unions. Certainly the Tories are already winning a substantial number of votes. Nonetheless, the fear of a “winter of discontent” is plainly an element in the calculations of the government in relation to its attitude toward the current postal dispute.

The media are producing their usual outpouring of anti-strike propaganda. In particular it is said that Royal Mail is habitually losing money – surprise, surprise! Most postal services across Europe are subsidised. Even the early privately owned Thurn und Taxis postal service back in 17th century Germany had to have state-backed monopoly rights, for the very simple reason that a profit could not – and still cannot – be made without them. A universal postal service is, precisely, public infrastructure. Privatising the postal service or requiring it to make profits is like selling off the public highways in pieces or prohibiting public expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ repairs to roads and bridges.

It is true that the universal postal service is, in some senses, of decreasing use because people have turned to email and other forms of electronic communication. The same has been the case in relation to businesses for quite some time: private couriers offering same-day delivery were used for some time before fax and email became routine.

So there is lower demand for postal services than there has been in the past. The government has been looking for ways to undermine wages and conditions, drastically reduce its pensions commitment, casualise the workforce and hopefully even get rid of the universal service obligation. This assault is aimed at creating conditions for privatising the postal service – government subsidies would be withdrawn without too much worry about the major losers: people living in the countryside.

There would actually be some losses for business out of this policy. Who will deliver all the junk mail – probably the bulk of most post bags these days? Equally, online mail order operations like Amazon could suffer, as it is unlikely that private couriers could actually deliver with the same coverage and at the same price.

The government and its servants in Royal Mail management demand ‘modernisation’. What this actually means is not primarily automation. That claim is bullshit. What it means is a major speed-up, attacks on working conditions and a move to, in effect, piece work, resulting in people not getting paid for a full shift. The language of ‘modernisation’ is merely code for a huge attack on the workforce.


In reality there has been industrial guerrilla warfare in Royal Mail locally for at least four or five years. Certainly there were major disputes going on in the more militant sorting offices as far back as the last general election. It was clearly decided in the spring/summer of this year to bring this simmering guerrilla warfare to a head, and have a massive, national confrontation with the CWU.

I say ‘clearly decided’ because it is obvious that in the last six to nine months there has been an escalation of unilateral action by management in the form of provocations, victimisations, etc. Actions that can only be intended to trigger local action and a climate of militancy, leading to a massive vote in support of industrial action. It is equally clear that management (and behind them business secretary Peter Mandelson) intended, as Thatcher and co intended in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, to control the timing of the national dispute. Here the point is if possible to break the union before we get into the Christmas run-up, which is the peak of the mail service business.

Similarly Thatcher aimed to bring out the miners before the overtime ban had reduced the coal stocks to the point where there would be forced power cuts. These tactics have been reflected in the political sphere, with absolute and complete intransigence on the part of Mandelson. And with Mandelson’s unequivocal backing, the Royal Mail management has stood firm to its assertion that it will not go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service without a pure and unambiguous guarantee from the CWU that there will be no strikes. But  the CWU could not deliver this even if it wanted to, because most of the industrial action has been local, over which the national union has less direct control.

Of course, this is not all one-sided. The CWU executive is generally seen among the membership as a militant leadership, and it, too, has been using the period of local and guerrilla struggles to prepare for the larger struggle which has now arrived.

What we have seen in the last months in relation to this dispute is therefore the run-up to a major class confrontation just like in 1984-85. There is an intention in government – at least among Peter Mandelson and his co-thinkers – and among Royal Mail management, to have a big confrontation and inflict a massive defeat on the CWU workers similar to that of the miners’ strike. This is expected to knock on the head any serious industrial militancy in the next six to nine months, as it will be an object lesson to other unions and other workers.

It will also be an object lesson in a second sense. The Labour government will demonstrate to capital, and to the capitalist media, that they are a safe hand on the tiller, that it is possible for a Labour government to smash an industrial offensive of the working class before it gets off the ground, and therefore capital should leave Labour in place rather than back Tory leader David Cameron.

The bourgeoisie has its concerns over Cameron. Yes, there is at the moment massive support for the Tories. Yes, the media have been backing him. But there are worries about how safe Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne will be as managers of the economy, at a time when quite a lot of media commentators are worrying about when the second shoe is going to drop in relation to the economic crisis.

There are also worries that a Cameron government might tip relations with Europe so far into Eurosceptic territory that Britain can no longer build alliances to block further EU integration. This is a central part of the role Britain plays for the United States in Europe: controlling a possible global rival by building alliances against Franco-German integration proposals.

So there are reasons for the capitalist class to have concerns about a Cameron administration. And if the Labour government can show, in these circumstances, that it can break a substantial public sector trade union, derecognise it and casualise its workforce, then Labour might, from that point of view, be in with a chance of regaining some of its lost bourgeois and middle class support prior to the next general election. There are, then, clear political calculations why this government might be thinking about doing a ‘Thatcher on the miners’ job in relation to the CWU.

Labour Party

In discussing the government’s policy I have referred particularly to Peter Mandelson. The reason is not merely that he is the relevant minister, but that there are indications that Gordon Brown is rather less up for a full-on confrontation (see Financial Times October 24); the failed TUC-sponsored talks (without the precondition demanded by Mandelson and management that the strikes be called off) represented a slight retreat by the government.

Behind this is a fundamental political fact. For Thatcher to set up a major class confrontation with the aim of breaking the National Union of Mineworkers was ‘extreme’ from the point of view of the 1940s-70s, but perfectly consistent with the longer historical role of the Tory Party. For a Labour government to actually smash one of its own major affiliated unions in a major national class confrontation would be something different altogether. Rather than allowing Labour to retain power, it would be more likely to break up the Labour Party. The result could be a split by the unions and the left, or – as in the 1931 fall of the Labour administration and the formation of the National government – a party revolt, leading to a split of the right to join up with the Tories to force the confrontation through.

True, the current Labour government since 1997 has faced down trade union action more than once (for example in the case of the firefighters). But in general the workers’ movement had not responded in a militant way. What appears to be different this time is the willingness of the movement to fight. A major conflict between the government and the CWU would pose severe problems for the Labour Party, that is for sure.

If Brown does back down from an all-out confrontation, it will be presented by the media as yet another Brown U-turn. Brown’s reputation for dithering not only reflects a hostile media, but is a real phenomenon. Unlike cynical careerists such as Blair, Mandelson and co, Brown was a genuine convert to neoliberalism from the left; hence, the 2007-08 crash shook his convictions and left him rudderless in policy terms. If Labour does go ahead with a major attack on the CWU, and the result is not a major split in the party, we in the CPGB will certainly need to reassess our current judgment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party: the event would look like the party finally ditching the ‘workers’ side of the contradiction.

But, whatever exact diagnosis we make, if the government goes ahead with plans to break and derecognise one of the Labour Party’s major affiliated trade unions, this will be a fundamental shift in politics and in particular of Labour Party politics.

Our tasks

post workers picketI have no idea why CWU general secretary Billy Hayes let himself be reported as saying he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill was (The Times October 17).

True, strike action has received very clear majority support in a ballot. But the actual underlying sectional economic positions are if anything weaker than those of the NUM in the 1980s, and the ability of the postal workers to sustain their internal solidarity in relation to a furious media offensive is likely to be less than the miners. The miners lived in concentrated communities, had networks of solidarity outside the pits in place, and indeed, as a workforce, were highly concentrated. Postal workers are concentrated only in sorting offices, but atomised when out on the streets. So the actual position of the CWU is relatively weak in the purely trade unionist, sectionalist-syndicalist sense of its ability to disrupt the economy.

However, this situation is to a considerable extent general in the service sector (and, indeed in some industrial sectors dominated by highly automated plant with small workforces). In this sense in future disputes the CWU will indeed look like a union with strong sectional power. But this is entirely consistent with my fundamental point: namely simple reliance on ‘industrial muscle’ – ie, sectional ability to disrupt production – is decreasingly adequate as a strategy to defend working people’s immediate interests.

Even if the sectional strength is less than Billy Hayes’ Times interview suggested, the possibilities of the strike winning broad public support are real. Precisely because of the increasing atmosphere of class confrontation in the dispute, because of the intransigent alignment of the government behind Royal Mail management and because we see the unanimity of the bourgeois media behind ideas most clearly expressed in the Daily Mail headline, “The lemming strike is on” (October 22), there has been some public reaction against the capitalist united front. We are beginning to see some, inchoate, inadequately politically represented, support for the postal workers. A poll reported in The Independent on October 24 showed 50% supporting the postal workers and only 25% supporting management and Mandelson.

So where does that leave us? It looks like we are headed for a major class confrontation with a serious and unambiguous effort to break the CWU, and thereby give an object lesson to the rest of the trade union movement, in the hope of preventing a “winter of discontent”.

What should the political left be doing? There are two sorts of task: simple solidarity ones, and those that are specifically political. The first of these are tasks that the labour movement and left will probably do well in spite of divisions and disorganisation. Raising the issue in other trade unions, getting CWU speakers to meetings, organising solidarity campaigns and support groups, collecting for strikers in hardship and so on. Promoting the idea of solidarity action: thus, for example, in Unite the question of instructing the managers not to scab has been posed.

The Socialist Workers Party is therefore entirely correct to advocate the rapid formation of strike support groups, which can play a critical role in mobilising public support and solidarity. There is also the question of international solidarity. Even if this is only symbolic in character – as, in this dispute, it inevitably is – such international solidarity would strengthen the morale of strikers and assist the struggle for broader solidarity within Britain.

A specific task lies in the student movement, because traditionally students have been recruited as casuals by the Royal Mail. We must agitate against students acting as scabs – this is an issue to be raised, addressed and spread. Indeed the general attitude towards scabs is critical. Casualisation is already extensive in the Royal Mail, partly inevitably because of the seasonal nature of the business. Nevertheless it is vital to get across the message that during this dispute taking casual jobs is scabbing. This is partly a job for the student movement; but it is also a job for strikers themselves: the movement needs to revive the basic ideas of non-cooperation with scabs, and that picket lines mean don’t cross. And it is also a job for PCS members working in job centres and so on: scab ‘casual’ jobs in Royal Mail are not ‘normal’ jobs to which the unemployed should be sent and PCS members should refuse to fill them.

Political tasks

The other aspect, where the far left is traditionally much weaker, concerns specifically political tasks. The far left is bad at these because they are the tasks of a party. Solidarity campaigns are necessarily broad movements of all those of whatever political complexion who wish to support the strikers. Hence they necessarily find it hard to address the politics of the strike.

For example, there is an early day motion opposing Royal Mail management’s intransigence, etc. Has your local Labour MP signed it? If not, why not? If your local Labour MP is supporting ‘modernisation’ and all that crap, perhaps it is time that his/her constituency office or surgery should be besieged by strikers and their supporters.

This sounds like a solidarity campaign-type action. But actually it turns out that broad solidarity organisations find it extraordinarily hard to undertake campaigns to besiege scab Labour MPs or whatever, because the Labour lefts and the trade union officials would be unwilling to pursue them. Stop the War Coalition in the 2005 election is an excellent example of the problem – it was unable to make any recommendation on who to vote for. Even in the 1984-85 miners’ strike this issue was posed, as the union leadership was very reluctant either to enter on the terrain of politics itself or for the support groups to do so.

What was said above about the Labour Party means that an absolutely central issue is the question of sharpening the divisions between left and right which a major confrontation with the CWU will inevitably produce. Parts of the left will undoubtedly call for the CWU to disaffiliate from Labour. But at the moment that would be a counsel of retreat and a road to depoliticising the union: neither ‘son of No2EU’ nor any of the other left groups and ‘unity projects’ presently represents a realistic alternative electoral project. What is immediately needed is for the CWU to adopt a tactic of reducing general financial contributions to Labour, targeting any support on Labour MPs and candidates who have backed the strike, and also being willing to back selected workers’ movement candidates outside Labour; if this leads to the party leadership seeking to remove affiliation, the union should fight back.

In other words, the requirement is not (yet) to run away from the Labour Party, but to promote and sharpen a fight both within and outside it against the most pro-capitalist wing of the party.

Equally important is explaining both the character of what is going on, that it is a class confrontation motivated and driven by politics. That is a task for a Communist Party, for communist papers, and for leaflets addressing the broad masses in the districts where they live. The far-left press and the splintered groups do part of these jobs, but we are too limited by our divisions and the left press and leaflets often restrict themselves to basic trade union solidarity – the Morning Star as a daily is closer to having the resources, but prints only what suits leading union officials.

Strike support groups cannot substitute for these tasks, for the reasons already given. Neither can the splintered organised left and the even more splintered ‘independents’. A coalition of the far left could begin to do some of them. In doing so such a coalition would be beginning to act as a party. But for the moment most of the far-left groups fetishise either their own independence as ‘the revolutionary party’ (all 57-plus of them); or ‘broad unity’, which leads to an inability to take political action because it has to include some element of the ‘official lefts’; or both at the same time. So, as valuable as a far-left coalition for the purposes of political solidarity with the postal workers would be, it probably will not happen.


Realistically, the CPGB cannot play this role either, because of our very limited resources. We can and should argue for Communist Students to campaign for students not to scab on the postal workers: a campaign which could be conducted in unity with other left student groups and could be very successful. Our contacts, through Hands Off the People of Iran, with the Iranian workers’ movement, can and should be used to promote symbolic international solidarity with the strike.

More generally, what we can do is largely limited to the use of the Weekly Worker, with which we can propagandise around the idea that solidarity has to be more than just hardship support and agitation in the trade union movement; that solidarity has to address the politics, the MPs and the political context of the strike.

The paper also needs to make an effort to contact CWU militants in the localities and get their stories. In spite of the fact that this is something the whole of the left is doing, in the context of the bourgeois media overwhelmingly giving the management and government version of the story, low-level exposures of the provocations management has been engaged in is a useful activity. We need to develop more and broader contacts across different localities, and get the information into the paper.

Equally militants and the left need information about the political alignments within the CWU and about what is going on in the dispute at national level. Are the far-lefts, some of whom sit on the CWU national executive, acting as communists or merely as trade union officials? We need to try to get the information and publicise it.

Across all this, the fundamental point is to use all the resources we have to try and develop the sense of the political context of the dispute, its significance and the question of solidarity of the working class as a whole with the strikers.

Oxford public meeting, October 27 – capitalism’s crisis and the communist alternative

going-out-of-businessOxford Communists are hosting our first public meeting on Tuesday October 27, in the Judges room at Oxford Town Hall. The meeting will start at 7.30pm and will be addressed by Mike Macnair – a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and author of the recent book Revolutionary strategy: Marxism and the challenge of left unity. Mike will be speaking on the important topic of the capitalist crisis – how it happened, why, what it means for the world – and the communist alternative to this system.

Come and join the discussion. There will be time for contributions, questions and debate from the floor. All welcome.

Topic: Capitalism’s crisis and the communist alternative

Speaker: Mike Macnair

Time: 7.30pm – 9.30pm

Date: Tuesday October 27th

Venue: Judges room, Oxford Town Hall, Aldate Street, Oxford.

There is a Facebook event page for this meeting which you can join here:

Freshers report

Many students are completely inexperienced politically, but are beginning to question the system, write Ted North and Dave Isaacson

Communist Students stall

Communist Students stall

Members of Communist Students held a stall outside Oxford University freshers fairs on October 7 and 8.

It was easy to predict the reactions of some of the scions of the traditional upper classes. Yet a few sniggers and bemused looks aside, there were no particularly sharp arguments coming from those that see communism as their worst nightmare. One piped up with “What crisis?” as he scurried on by, not waiting for an answer. But most people were not so stupid as that.

We gave out a large number of Communist Student and material from Hands Off the People of Iran. In all, just over 50 signed our contact sheet. There were perhaps, relative to other universities, somewhat fewer students with some background or prior knowledge of far-left politics. If anyone did display an acquaintance with the left groups, it came in the form of questions like “You’re not anything to do with the SWP, are you?”

Comrades from the Socialist Workers Party were present on the first day, along with Workers Fight and a comrade from the Enverist Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who was leafleting for a meeting on “democratic renewal”. On the second day, the Socialist Party and the Spartacists were also in town. The point we often repeat – that if the ostensibly Marxist left was joined in a single organisation its strength would be far greater than the sum of its parts – was well demonstrated. Students who are sympathetic to the aims of socialism would have been less confused and more likely to commit themselves if there had been a single Marxist organisation present. And we would be taken a lot more seriously by our enemies too.

The standard economistic ‘Fight for jobs’ type leaflets were being handed out by the SP, one of whom became a touch aggressive when a CS comrade insisted that a workers’ militia is a basic democratic demand and not lunatic posturing. Most of the SPers were friendly enough, though – unlike the comrades of the SWP, who refused even to make eye contact.

Many who spoke to us are completely inexperienced politically, but are beginning to question the system (as are young people in general). We expect a good turnout to our upcoming introductory meeting at Judges room, Oxford Town Hall on Thursday October 27 starting at 7.30pm. We have Mike Macnair, leading CPGB member and author of Revolutionary strategy, speaking on the capitalist crisis and the communist alternative. There will, of course, be plenty of time for discussion. Indeed, as we have repeatedly stressed, open debate and democracy are not just good ideas: they are in fact crucial in building both the Communist Party and the wider working class movement. And for us this is about now, not at some hypothetical date in the future.

Unfortunately the first left meeting our Oxford comrades planned to attend – a Stop the War Coalition rally featuring Jeremy Corbyn MP and Tariq Ali on October 12 – was cancelled at the last minute. But we will continue trying to engage with the left as it is currently constituted, as well as building our own organisation and carrying out educational and agitational activities. We will be launching a study group reading David Harvey’s book on Marxist economics – Limits to capital – to begin on Saturday October 31. And before that we are encouraging as many people as possible to attend the Stop the War Coalition demonstration in London on October 24. We are also planning, alongside other comrades, to get a Hopi branch established in Oxford.

csbanner-300x225Many would not consider what is, on the one hand, a traditional bastion in ensuring the continuity of British capitalism, as fertile ground for communist growth. But on the other hand, Oxford University also attracts many sincere and bright young people who, looking at global poverty, ecological crisis and capitalist greed, want to radically transform things. Our challenge is to equip them with politics, theory and organisation.